The experimental flu drug favipiravir doesn't help patients with advanced Ebola infections but it may help patients if they get it a little earlier, a trial from Guinea in West Africa shows.
French researchers tested the drug, made by a Japanese company, in 80 real-life Ebola patients hit in the ongoing epidemic.
The drug did not appear to help people who arrived for treatment already very ill with high levels of virus in their blood, the team at the French medical institute INSERM said. Even with treatment, 93 percent of them died. But if they weren't already seriously ill, only 15 percent of them died.
It's very preliminary data and 80 patients is not enough to say for sure the drug helped. But it's encouraging data, the team told the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle.
Ebola has infected more than 23,000 people and killed more than 9,500 of them, the World Health Organization says.
Tests of the drug are still going on. The group Doctors Without Borders (MSF or Medecins Sans Frontieres) is helping test it.
"MSF is pleased to see that favipiravir seems to have a positive effect for certain patients suffering from Ebola virus disease," said Dr. Bertrand Draguez, medical director of MSF. "But it also seems that the most vulnerable patients, the people that are most likely to die from the disease, don't benefit at all from favipiravir. That fact, and the fact that these are only preliminary results, show that it is really too soon to start using favipiravir outside a trial environment.".
Favipravir would be a useful drug because it can be given as a pill, meaning it doesn't require refrigeration and would be very easy to ship and store. Other experimental therapies must be kept frozen and infused. Having to use needles is tricky for such a lethal disease — health workers can easily be infected if they accidentally get poked by a needle while treating a patient.
The INSERM team said 42 percent of the 80 patients they treated showed up very ill. More than 80 percent were already in kidney failure, and 93 percent of them died.
But 58 percent of the patients were less ill and had less virus in their blood. Even though 42 of them had kidney failure, just 15 percent died.
"I am excited about the encouraging results of one of our EU-funded projects to tackle Ebola," Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said in a statement. "If these results are confirmed by the ongoing clinical trial, it will be the first-ever treatment to be deployed against this deadly disease during the current outbreak."
There's no drug specifically approved to treat Ebola, which has killed 60 percent to 70 percent of patients in this epidemic. But several are being tested, including the infusion ZMapp, made using tobacco plants, and another pill called brincidofovir. Several vaccines are also being tested in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.